Great British Menu 2021: Central heat recap

Great British Menu 2021: Central heat recap

by Howard Middleton 27 March 2021

The first regional heat of 2021's Great British Menu is done and dusted – Howard Middleton returns to share all the highs and lows of the week.

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Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

The winds of change blow through the Great British Menu kitchen, in part presumably due to an enhanced ventilation system that’s essential in these precautionary times. Judge-turned-presenter Andi Oliver has her trademark fan to hand, just in case there’s an urgent need for additional airflow.

On the menu this year is a banquet to celebrate British innovation and invention. Regular judges Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort are joined by new judge, Rachel Khoo. Rachel seems so vibrantly enthusiastic for the task ahead that Matthew admits he feels exhausted already.

Some familiar chefs are geared up to return to the competition, along with a healthy influx of new talent. However, some things thankfully never change. The cheffy passion for tattoos shows no sign of abating – it looks like some of this year’s contenders will be displaying more inked flesh than a calligraphic butcher.

Head chef at London’s AllBright club, Sabrina Gidda returns to the competition, hoping it’s third time lucky. Newcomer Stuart Collins from Docket No.33 in Whitchurch brings engagingly modest determination.

Missing out on a trip to the judging chamber this week was Liam Dillon from The Boat Inn in Lichfield. He literally lost out by just one point, and the judges subsequently missed out on a very clever cotton-reel canapé, a bone marrow bread-and-butter pudding starter and a beautiful dessert featuring edible paper.

Shannon Johnson from Hicce also sadly slipped through the net on Wednesday, despite an impressive looking fish course, complete with decorative bone. This week’s veteran chef, Lisa Goodwin-Allen, who suffers a seafood allergy, roped in Simon Rogan to judge this course. Lisa concluded, ‘Shannon – you’re a star – I definitely want to see you back next year’.

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Back in the judging chamber, air hugs and socially-distanced seating welcome this week’s guest judge, who is no stranger to space – it’s astronaut Helen Sharman OBE.

For their canapés, Sabrina deep-fries a tasty-looking ball of potato and Stilton and tops with pickles, whilst Stuart spears mustardy chicken mousse and Shropshire coppa in a clever nod to Cluedo. Rachel (appropriately dressed in scarlet) is the only one willing to admit she plays the game.

Oliver says that Stuart’s ‘does everything you want a canapé to do’, which must surely boost the little canapé’s confidence. Sabrina’s is deemed too big.

For her starter, Sabrina serves tartlets inspired by Stephen Hawking. Confit leeks and Black Bomber cheese are coaxed into fragile, herb-flecked pastry cases, then topped with mushrooms and pickled shallots, a poached egg yolk and bacon crumb. Sabrina’s espuma gun spluttered and splodged erratically on Wednesday and it does it again. She spoons the mushroom foam instead and dusts with charcoal powder and truffle. Oliver likes it but Matthew agrees with Rachel’s assessment – ‘murky’.

Next up, it’s Stuart with his starter, which pays tribute to the work of dietitian and nutritionist Elsie Widdowson. Glazed pork cheeks sit on cabbage and bacon choucroute and pickled apple dice, alongside dots of apple and vanilla purée. A little sack of salty pork airbag directs diners to ‘Take it with a Grain of Salt’. Rachel says ‘it’s a pretty good choucroute’ (with impeccable pronunciation), Oliver wants ‘more contrast’ but Matthew thinks it’s ‘absolutely delicious’.

Sabrina’s fish course celebrates the work of academic and pioneer in cultural studies, Stuart Hall. Salt cod fritters are dressed with sweet mango chilli sauce and served in little coco-bread burger buns alongside wild sea bass with escabeche vegetables and a rum cocktail on the side. Oliver thinks the chilli is overpowering, whilst Helen says she’d be ‘blown away’ having this at a lunchtime café. Matthew reminds her, ‘this isn’t a café at lunchtime, this is the Great British Menu’. Ouch.

Stephen Hawking’s black holes are back with Stuart’s fish dish, ‘Singularity’. He spoons taramasalata in black bowls, then adds trout tartare, followed by candied and golden beetroot. Nasturtium leaves, marigold petals and caviar follow, and this fiery burst of colour is temporarily eclipsed by a dramatic black coral tuile. Oliver smiles with pleasure, Rachel says ‘it’s very moreish’ and Matthew tries to build a consensus on the crucial role of the beetroot gel. ‘A really delicious dish’, he concludes.

Inspiring Stuart’s main course is John Spilsbury, inventor of the jigsaw puzzle. Stuart matches violet potatoes with purple sprouting broccoli and rose veal cooked two ways – sliced fillet and rich ragout, alongside a veal shin sauce. The judges agree it’s all ‘delicious’ but ‘missing magic’.

Sabrina’s main course is a very classy tribute to the humble bottle of HP sauce. On the plate goes spiced butternut squash purée, followed by pork kofta and pork tenderloin. Potato chaat, crispy curry leaves, pomegranate and tomato salad, pork crackling and a garnish of coriander cress complete the dish. Bottles of her spicy masala sauce are ready to pour. Rachel says it’s ‘happy and bright and flavoursome’. Oliver thinks the sauce overpowers the meat. Matthew reminds him that he had control of his own condiment – ‘You shouldn’t have put so much on!’

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Time for a little palate-cleansing as the pre-desserts come out. Inspired by the invention of traffic lights, Stuart’s lemon cream and herb ice lollies get a green light from Oliver. However, Sabrina’s plum jellies with damson gin granita are judged to be a little too firm. ‘You want a good wobble on your jelly,’ bemoans Rachel.

Onto the final course and Stuart layers praline, hazelnut, feuilletine and dark chocolate in honour of Edgar Hooley who introduced tarmacked roads to Nottingham. It’s a witty dessert, complete with a shovel-shaped spoon and a roadworker’s tin mug of Earl Grey sorbet. Rachel and Oliver decide it’s not a banquet dish, but Matthew and Helen disagree.

Sabrina’s dessert celebrates Birmingham chemist Alfred Bird, famed for inventing eggless instant custard powder. Her custard tart is paired with Parisienne apples and raspberry ice cream. Oliver says it’s ‘nice’. Rachel agrees but adds ‘you know what I think of ‘nice’’.

Well, the chefs have done all they can. Andi announces the winner and… it’s Stuart. And then he cries. He pays a teary tribute to Sabrina’s hard work and, were it possible, the nation loves Stuart even more. I doubt I’m alone in having a lump in my throat. Great British Menu – it’s good to have you back!